Though we are all preparing to greet fall, her cooler air, and the promise of crisp apples and warming winter squash, don't yet shut the door on tomatoes and the lingering taste of summer they can offer year-round. At least in the Lowcountry, tomatoes will be coming in for a few more weeks. Here are some tips (plus a recipe) for how to put that last bunch to good use, taken from the tomato sauce chapter of my upcoming book on French sauces (Gibbs Smith, Spring 2013).
"Les Sauces Tomates"—Tomato Sauces
Though frequently associated with Italian cuisine, the tomato (also called "pomme d'amour," or "love apple," in France) plays a significant role in French sauce-making and cooking, as well. One of the five mother sauces of French classical cooking, tomato sauces can serve as a garnish for fish or meat or be tossed with pasta. The meaty juiciness of tomatoes make them the perfect conduit for a quick, fresh, naturally thickened sauce, which is often enhanced with wine, garlic, onion, and fresh herbs.
When in season, fresh tomatoes are preferable to canned. Firm and fragrant plum tomatoes are considered ideal for cooking, but the many heirloom varieties available at farmers' markets and groceries have magnificent flavor and color, as well. When cooking with those that have been canned, look for whole, peeled tomatoes, preferably the San Marzano Italian imports.
Tomatoes are often peeled and seeded prior to cooking, or else the seeds and skins are strained out afterward. Peeling and seeding fresh tomatoes is simple enough: trim the stem base out with a paring knife and cut a little "X" into the top of the tomato. Place the tomato(es) in simmering, hot water for about 30 seconds, or until the "X" forms little, loose skin flaps. Remove them from the water and submerge in ice cold water for several seconds. The skin will literally peel right off a ripe tomato. To seed the tomatoes, cut them in half horizontally. Gently, using your fingertips, prod the seeds from the little seed pockets distributed throughout the tomato and discard. Don't fret if you miss a few.
One of the many advantages of tomato sauces is that they freeze beautifully for up to three months. Make a few big batches now when tomatoes are still being harvested and freeze them in quantities you will use as fall and winter approach. Thaw, reheat, and voila, an instant taste of summer on your plate even when winter winds howl.
"Sauce Mariniere"—Marinara Sauce
Beautiful, fresh marinara sauce prepared with late summer tomatoes and basil
This lovely, light sauce is worth making over and over again. It simply sings with tomato flavor and goes just as well tossed with a bowl of spaghetti as it does with grilled fish or roasted chicken. Countless variations can be made to the recipe, as well. Ground beef, turkey, pork, sausage, or bacon could be added early in the cooking process, or, the sauce could be finished with other vegetables, including mushrooms, bell peppers, or fennel. Add the fresh basil at the very end, just before serving. The sauce can be refrigerated for several days prior to using or frozen for up to three months.
Marinara Sauce recipe:
(Yields 6 cups)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled, mashed, and finely chopped
Pinch of sea or kosher salt and ground black pepper (more, to taste, to be added at end)
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup good quality red wine
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 sprigs each of rosemary, thyme, and oregano, tied in a bundle with kitchen string
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1/4 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, and pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to coat, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened and fragrant but not browned. Add the tomatoes. Increase heat to medium high, stir, and cook another three minutes. Season with another pinch of salt and pepper. Add the wine, chicken stock, fresh herb bundle, sugar, and red chili pepper flakes. Bring up to a boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer. Cook over medium, medium-low heat for 45 minutes, or until reduced by about one-third. Remove herb bundle. Puree the sauce lightly in a blender or with a hand-held emulsion blender, about 30 pulses, or until frothy and chunky-smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Add the basil just before serving. Serve hot.